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'Falling in love with somebody . . . you've never met'

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; E12

Casey Guadagnini's grandfather -- the one she considered "dad number two" -- had just passed away in the early summer of 2007 when she began spending a lot of time on Facebook. Dave Smalley, the longtime basketball coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, had been the one to teach her to drive and play basketball when Guadagnini's father, a rear admiral, had to be away on duty.

"It was just a really big shock to me," she says. "So I was just staying in a lot, not going out."

Facebook had recently introduced a slew of new applications, including an adaptation of an earlier Web site, "Hot or Not," that allowed users to rate each other's attractiveness.

"I said, 'I wonder if I got good ratings, if that would make me feel a little better,' " recalls Guadagnini. Laughing to herself, she posted a picture. And while the athletic trainer, who was then about to start an internship at the Naval Academy, wasn't terribly satisfied with her hotness rating, she was inundated with requests from guys who wanted to communicate with her.

"I was like, 'This is ridiculous. I do not want to meet people on the Internet.' I just wanted a boost to my self-esteem," she says.

Most of the inquiries were quickly deleted. But one kept gnawing at her -- a guy whose profile picture showcased the blue eyes and dark hair to which she'd always been partial. She wrote him a one-word message: "Hey."

He replied quickly, introducing himself as Matt Lockwood, and soon they were exchanging frequent pleasantries. When he spelled color with a "u" -- colour -- she asked where he was from. "Cornwall," he wrote and in her next message she asked, "What state is that in?"

"And when he said the U.K., I was like, 'Oh well, cool. This has been fun,' " she says.

Instead of fizzling, their communication escalated. Guadagnini would race home from work to check for new messages. Lockwood, a graduate student who'd gone through a breakup when he posted his own picture on Hot or Not, would stay up late to see if he could catch Guadagnini online.

After a month, he asked if he could call. That first conversation lasted more than five hours. "There might have been a point after three hours where I was like, 'It's 2 a.m., should I hang up the phone? No. I'm good,' " recalls Lockwood, now 24. "We just got along so well."

They discovered Skype and were soon spending three and four hours talking every night. Both shied away from bringing up the relationship with friends, wary of the stigma of Internet romance. "It's hard enough to be falling in love with somebody that you've never met," Guadagnini says, "never mind trying to justify to someone else why this ridiculous story is not actually ridiculous."

But the strangeness of the situation was getting to her, too, and just as Guadagnini started expressing real doubts, Lockwood proposed a trip to Maryland. They'd spent three months fantasizing about kissing one another by the time Guadagnini picked up Lockwood at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport in September 2007. He was sweaty, bleary eyed and shaking; she felt strangely detached.

"It was just so weird, cause you've never been around that person before and all of a sudden you're like, 'Oh, awkward. I don't know you,' " Guadagnini says.

But after a few margaritas and the reestablishment of a rapport, she realized: "Oh, I do know this person. . . . I do. And I like this guy."

By the end of the week, the pair had exchanged their first in-person "I love yous" and set up a plan for Guadagnini to visit England at Christmas. The tearful goodbyes became a regular occurrence as they hopped across the ocean to see each other every few months. Within a year, they began to talk of marriage.

"But we were like, 'Well, maybe this is just a fantasy -- we've never really spent time together,' " says Guadagnini. Up close, she feared, "maybe we'd actually hate each other."

To find out, Lockwood came to the United States and lived with Guadagnini for two months in the fall of 2008. They had their first big fights, saw imperfections they'd previously missed and still couldn't imagine a future without each other.

Lockwood started searching for work visas as Guadagnini pushed for marriage. "I was crazy in love," she says. "I'd do anything. 'Want to go to the courthouse next week? I'm good.' But he's much more level-headed and wanted to stand on his own two feet. . . . He didn't want it to seem like a green-card wedding."

A job prospect fell through, and with no visa on the horizon, Guadagnini's weariness grew. She nearly ended the relationship before a planned trip to England in March 2009, though her mother convinced her that if she was going to call it off, she had to do it face to face.

She got on the plane thinking, " 'He's either going to propose or it's going to be over,' as funny as that sounds. But there was nothing keeping me from wanting to be with him except the emotional strain of having to say goodbye all the time, and not knowing when we could start being together."

An anxiety-filled week into her trip, Lockwood took Guadagnini to a castle overlooking Cornwall and asked if she would be his wife. They began planning a wedding and applying for a permanent visa. Confident that the process would be complete, he booked a flight to the United States for Christmas 2009. No visa arrived. He rescheduled it for two weeks later. The visa came, but so did the snow, canceling his flight. The following day, Jan. 16, 2010 -- after a long stop at immigration -- Lockwood finally joined Guadagnini.

"The last couple months have been great," she says. "We've had setbacks and things, but we keep saying, 'At least we don't have to go through this over the phone.' "

Guadagnini answered a resounding "Yes!" when her dad asked if she was ready to walk down the aisle to marry Lockwood on March 6. They beamed at each other from the dock of Celebrations at the Bay as the sun began to set over the Chesapeake.

In many ways, both are still adjusting to the physical presence of each other, though they're glad, now, that their love developed at a distance.

"As hellacious as it was," says Lockwood, "that whole period of not being able to see each other, when the only way you can communicate is to talk -- it makes you pretty strong."

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